Published on February 12th, 2014 | by Caroll Sun Yang3
CAROLL SUN YANG on A Mother’s Fear of Death
The death of my only child occurs to me on certain occasions that have no pertinence to death whatsoever. Death lives to creep. I might be noisily licking an old-fashioned peppermint stick, nursing a black coffee and reading about Shaker furniture when suddenly I will see his funeral fade in between a birch demilune table, Arabica jitters and my sugary salivation.
There he is, my only son, father-less as they come, laid in a drop-top casket of mahogany. In this vision, his cheeks are so pink with theater makeup that he looks feverish, but he is not even close to that. His lips are pomegranate rubs on such flawless skin and I will helplessly smash my face against his to feel his impossible breath or his echoing ghost murmurs of ladybug flight dreams and favorite types of ice-creams had. Bubble Gum. But nothing, the lips will be fused shut like a thousand-ton magnets. His laser sharp blackberry eyes are closed. If in my ultra hysteric single-mother grief, I attempt to peel back his pale lids I will witness only a cloudy focus-less mess. I will collapse on the floor wishing to be swallowed up by ground and such a shrill scream will leave me that they will have to summon some sort of psychiatric emergency unit and strap me away. I will weep like a woman possessed or newly heartbroken or longing for a departing father, screaming no in every intonation possible, wrapped up in a howl that comes from way down, a filthy nauseous choke like a machine on it’s last legs.
A dead child is not easily described. Particularly, one who shows no signs of physical decline. I am not sure why I bother to write about it, except that it relieves the gnawing guilt of unwarranted but not uncommon thoughts frequently thought by new mothers. An infant is an absolute burst thrust upon us, no matter how prepared in spirit and home we may be; a pulsing entity of and separate from ourselves arrives forcefully, never simple. They arrest us in myriad ways.
In his infancy I would cradle him to my breast to feed every two hours or so. He was a ravenous child. When I nursed him I could feel the flood of bonding hormones rising up and between our bodies. He would gaze at me in such bliss and peace, rolling his eyes back when he succumbed to waves of nourishing pleasure. It was during these life-sustaining sessions that I would suddenly envision myself smothering his tiny man-fist sized face with his first teddy bear. This type of thought was always followed by a psychic shudder. I would think, I really would think “How very easy it would be to end this life now, sparing him all of the inevitable hardships, heartbreaks and illnesses that life brings. The shit I dread myself.” Mothers are capable of these things, sparing and sheltering and noosing up of apron strings. Is the line very fine that separates a mother who merely thinks such morbid thoughts from a mother who actually fulfills the visions?
I would psychically bash myself in the face for even thinking of harming my newborn. I suffered from no post-partum syndromes. I exhibited no history of physical violence. I abstained from chemicals and alcohol in all forms. I was successfully rearing my baby boy and studying at a prestigious arts college with the help of my friends and family. A functioning post-nuclear village as it were, but even in a tribe one feels adrift when faced with the enormity of the task which is mothering. One feels vicious on no account. Hormones, single-motherhood, civilization, media, sleep-deprivation, environment, things ingested, climate, poverty, being a daughter, the negation of natural instinct in favor of prescribed ways of rearing our young, original guilt, the fantastical whims of our minds, wavelengths, memories, planetary movements plus so much more all contribute to the possibility of having the occasional violent thought.
As I lay nursing, and thoughts of harming would float through my mind uninvited, my child would be locked in on me still suckling at a selfish but acceptable pace. I used to suspect, in these moments when I was an imaginary murderess, that there was a shift in the way my infant perceived me. That this pre-lingual fiend for teat milk and mother’s flesh could sense some danger. Then I thought, in strange mid-sixties pop song lyric form probably born of severe sleep deprivation and a deep love of all things “The Beatles”:
Now, he is looking through me.
Where did I go?
He thought he knew me.
I’m not the same.
If my own son were to pass into some kind of afterlife (or god forbid… zero life) before me, I would hang. From a rafter or tree. Makes no difference. If I am the kind of mother who clings, so be it. If I think that life is not for living if not for him, so be it. Many good men spring from long guarded eggs, so be it.
Mama? Mama, I am getting full, I am almost finished.
Now, here he is in the flesh. A few years past his utter helplessness (and mine), playing with vicious plastic creatures at my feet, eating mushroom soup and croissants folded over slabs of rich butter. As I write, he is growing. His brain is a marvelous network that I can mingle with. I stroke his shoulder, between these lines typed, and give him a friendly life-confirming squeeze. He is real and warm. Unbidden happiness rolls through me and flips my heart over and over. I notice. Our California sunlight is hitting him just right, putting a brilliant crown on his head, but when doesn’t the sunlight hit a child just right? He grins, pushing food between the gaps in his baby teeth. He tells me about a creature who swims up the Hoover Dam while being pelted by ghosts. I nod. How brilliant. What a sinewy biologist slash premature architect slash philosopher. I wish to make him live past a hundred years.
Very soon he will be old enough to read this. A time when we will share flannels, watch South Park with total and mutual understanding, argue about the mysteries of life and a trillion petty things too. Soon there will never again be moments when thoughts of harming him will thrust themselves into my mind, desperately attempting to mend a kind of shared First World helplessness. But each day, as long as I live, I will still feel that in myriad small ways, I am harming him-, which is to say, mothering. I hope that when he reads this someday, he will understand my love for him. How alive it was from the very moment I saw his bean sized person with a tiny beating heart on the screen during an ultra-sound to this very moment as I type. I hope that he will be confused, scared and amused by my words but finally wise enough to know that there is a lot of beauty in the mysterious ways of us.
Some days when I grow weary of mothering young children who are dependent on me for their livelihood, who mimic my every vice and virtue, are affected by my every mood as I try to keep my own developmentally arrested head above water in a crowded city full of rules and clutter and noise and dust and ways to “play the game”. On especially tiring days, my body revolts and I cry loud. I even growl and wish to run far and fast, shouting adieu to it all! (You know this is sometimes the case). But, with the same imagination that envisioned my own son’s death, I can settle myself by thinking of life too- I send myself into the future where I see myself ruffling my healthy adult son’s lovely hair under some sheltering eve in a bucolic setting, a place where fireflies light up under many stars, and the horizon is viewable. When poverty has abandoned us. Traffic is a memory. Human and noise pollution just bygones. Ravaging anxiety has left our bodies at last. I see us in the dusky half sun, drinking from tall sunset tinged glasses, concoctions we have mixed up ourselves, maybe a kind of sweet nourishing milk. We sit there quietly breathing in the fresh air that we always longed for. “The Beatles” play their songs hard and soft on an old record player. A fiery young girl chatters and runs about, a blood partner for my son, another child for me to write about and for. A sweet, handsome father clowns about, passes a joint around and intermittently loses himself in a barn to paint images drawn from memories of his own boyhood. The family is nuclear and it is living love. If it all sounds idealistic and flowery, it is because it is. I make no apologies today. I stay.
I hope that when my beautiful firstborn son and I do part, it will be in full health, mutual, with great love and genuine affection, fast and neat, no lingering. I see us shaking hands. I see us retiring to our own beds in our own homes, where other people wait to live. All ropes undone. I see never-ending yards of glittering apron strings scattered at my feet and the bonding hormones rising up, and up.